An alternative ending
By Sarah Brubeck
For the students at Aurora, high school at Bloomington North or South wasn’t just difficult; it was a nightmare. They dreaded school dances, hated the cliques and didn’t bother to attend homecoming.
The students at Aurora were students who were bored at North and South, the drop-outs, the junior with only nine credits and the student who the guidance counselor said would never graduate.
The system had failed these kids and most had lost hope in graduation. Aurora Alternative High School, a small building tucked away on the corner of North Fairview and Ninth Streets, was their last chance.
Aurora was a place where students not only called the principal, Chuck Holloway, by his first name, but where he was also their best friend. Two gargoyles stood guard in front of the school, and Chuck’s collection of gargoyle figurines lined his office.
Aurora offered everything that a home could provide: security, education and family. The teachers were like their second set of parents, and Aurora was like their second home. The students claimed the walls for themselves the way high school kids put posters on their walls. Paintings done by students of Martin Luther King Jr., Led Zeppelin and Princess Diana lined the hallways. And every senior was given a brick they could decorate and make their own.
It might have been a laid back school, but it wasn’t a lazy one. Students came to Aurora to learn, graduate and maybe go to college. Not every student was a success story, and many still dropped out. But for some students, like Oompa, it worked.
Oompa had a record of bad grades that followed her back to the sixth grade.
Her real name was Jessica Barger, but everyone called her Oompa because she was short. She’d always loved school when she was little, but like many kids, it got brutal in the sixth grade. All of her friends turned on her and bullied her around. So she bought a T-shirt that said, “I see dumb people reading my shirt,” and she bullied them right back. Since then she hadn’t tried in school. And when she was 16, she got pregnant and dropped out.
But then she came to Aurora in fall 2009. When she made the honor roll, her mother thought there was some kind of mistake and assumed she’d received another student’s report card in the mail. For the first time, she was making good grades and scaring her family.
“The first trimester I worked my ass off,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged.”
But then on a cold Friday in February 2010 after school had let out and the students trickled home, the news began to spread. The school, which had given Oompa and so many others a last chance and a future, would be shutdown. Without Aurora, Oompa knew she wouldn’t make it.
* * *
In a state where budget cuts are hitting school funding hard, they’re hitting students harder. Monroe County Community School Corporation had to make more than $5 million worth of budget cuts more than a year ago as part of a statewide decrease in funding. Aurora was one of the first programs to go.
In November 2010, 17 Indiana school districts asked their residents to pay additional property taxes to help fund their schools. Of those 17, only six referendums passed. Monroe County was one of them, but that still didn’t save Aurora.
Aurora is one example of education lost and diplomas that will never be earned.
Funding cuts are not unique to Bloomington; it’s an epidemic sweeping the country. But at the root of these cuts are the students. Teachers lose jobs, buildings are shut down, but students’ educations are ultimately affected.
The situation of the students at Aurora shows that when funding needs to be cut, kids are sometimes seen as expendable.
Students pleaded at school board meetings to save their school, and Chuck asked the school board not to send the message that these kids didn’t matter. But when the state cut funding from schools, school boards across the state had to make tough decisions.
“I don’t think there’s a way to cut $4.5 million out of our budget without damaging our school district,” said Vicki Streiff, former school board secretary, at a meeting in February 2010. “I don’t think we’re doing good things. I think we’re doing terrible things, but we’re stuck. We have our backs against the wall, and we are not happy about this.”
* * *
Before the news of the budget cuts spread, Oompa knew something was up. The usually happy Chuck began snapping at students and was acting more like a principal and less like a friend.
He had Oompa in his office for a “Chuck Chat” one day, his gargoyles looking down on her.
As he finished drilling her on why she had a bad grade in a class, she turned the spotlight on him, asking him why he’d been so agitated lately. Although he couldn’t tell her, she knew him well enough to know that it was about the school.
Then on a Saturday in February, Oompa sat at home as she read the Facebook message. It was a call to come to the school because Chuck had to tell them something.
The news that Aurora was closing spread like lice in an elementary school. Students who hadn’t gone to Aurora for years received texts and Facebook messages.
After spending that Saturday letting reality sink in, Oompa spent every study hall for two weeks doing nothing but trying to keep the school open. She flipped through phone books and made calls asking people in the community to meet her somewhere to sign a petition to keep the school open. Every day for weeks she would go downtown and gather what would be more than 3,000 signatures.
After all, this was the only school that Oompa had ever tried to do anything for.
* * *
A miracle is what Chuck called the Save Aurora effort. Chuck began opening the school in the evenings twice a week so students could come and brainstorm ways to raise money to save the school. Three students, including Oompa, bounced around ideas, such as having an open house.
“We can say ‘You might as well stop by while it’s still open,’” Chuck joked.
They began planning rallies for a Thursday in March and thought about a garage sale to help raise money.
“We could have it at my house or here, your house,” one girl at the meeting said.
“We could do it anywhere … 7/11 parking lot,” Oompa said.
Chuck pulled up the Save Aurora blog, which had a thermometer that was keeping track of the money the students raised for the school.
“We already have $50,” Chuck said. “Oh wait, that’s $5.”
* * *
Aaron Rivera was technically a sophomore when he came to Aurora, but with only about four credits, his diploma was as out of reach as a freshman’s.
The transition wasn’t easy. The teachers helped him with his work, but he couldn’t skate through his classes like he used to. His teachers expected him to do his assignments, and if he didn’t, he ended up in Chuck’s office.
Aaron was almost kicked out of Aurora three or four times, which he said was crazy because he doesn’t know what he would have done without the school.
Aaron had been at the school for four years. Only one other senior had been there as long.
Everyone gravitated toward him. If the freshmen were acting up, Aaron would tell them to get into shape. He was Chuck’s wing man, and he’d sit in his office for hours just chatting.
But then one day during the fall of his senior year, Aaron was called into Chuck’s office with a few of the other top students. Aaron assumed he was in trouble again as Chuck’s collection of gargoyles stared him down.
“If they shut down the school,” Chuck asked, “what would you do?”
“Would we be able to graduate?” one student asked.
“I don’t know,” Chuck said.
Becky Rupert asked her English class to write about “A time when something happened to you that wasn’t fair. You can think about your school experience and experiencing injustice.”
Many of the students in the class were writing about their school.
“I’m writing about the rally thing,” Oompa said.
She had small pink and blue braids covering her head that stuck out in all directions.
Each braid was held up with neon colored rubber bands. Today was her birthday.
Students had a rally planned the previous day as part of their Save Aurora campaign, but it was canceled and they weren’t given an explanation. They were still waiting to hear why.
* * *
As students walked to a March town meeting, a weekly school discussion in The Commons, they passed signs that read, “Don’t go visit other MCCSC school grounds between 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.” or “Don’t make us like North or South.”
As students sat down for town meeting, Chuck said, “You should hear it from me. I’m sad more kids aren’t here to hear this.”
It was the Friday before spring break, and students wanted to know why their Save Aurora rally was canceled.
Chuck explained that when he talked to the superintendent, he asked, “If we can get the money, will they keep Aurora open? The answer was no.”
“I’d rather them tell us this today than raise all the money and in three months get our hopes up and then tell us it won’t happen,” Chuck said.
Oompa put her head in her right hand and continued to switch hands as she wiped away tears. She then grabbed her water bottle with energy, took off the cap quickly then slammed her bottle back on the table.
“You did nothing wrong,” Chuck said. “There was nothing about the closing of the school that was attributed to you.”
As town meeting ended and students dispersed, Oompa didn’t leave Chuck’s side.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to do this,” she said.
“There’s a lot of things that shouldn’t happen,” Chuck replied as he touched her hand.
* * *
Oompa first applied to Aurora during the summer before her sophomore year, but she didn’t take it seriously. She’d bother to come to class maybe once a week. Soon she was kicked out and found herself sitting at a desk at Bloomington High School North again. When she discovered she was pregnant, she dropped out of North for good.
But then she saw her best friend graduate as valedictorian from Aurora, the same friend who convinced her to apply. So she swallowed her pride, reapplied to Aurora and begged Chuck to let her come back.
She bawled her eyes out during the interview, but she wanted Chuck to know she was serious.
But after Chuck announced that they couldn’t save the school, her days were numbered. She didn’t have a plan. She tried looking for a job, but since she wasn’t a college kid in Bloomington, finding a job was near impossible. She just hung out and complained about Aurora with her friends until the topic was exhausted.
Since it was her birthday weekend, she and her friends already had tickets to a Boondocks concert. The concert wasn’t very good, she remembered. Everyone was squashed against one another, and she couldn’t move. But she remembered it being the perfect way to lift their spirits.
* * *
In Barb Curry’s environmental science class, a group of 13 students read an article in The Herald-Times about the first day of spring. Six garden plots could be seen outside Barb’s window, and students picked what vegetables and fruits they would like to grow.
As students read the article, they picked what items they could plant in the next three weeks.
“It’s kind of sad to be creating a garden,” Barb said to the class. “I planned this curriculum before I knew the school was going to close.”
“What’s going to happen to the building?” one student asked.
“I heard maybe storage,” Barb said before explaining that each garden will be 4 feet by 6 feet.
Barb explained that marigolds would line each garden to keep the bugs away and then asked,
“Do you guys want to go look at them first?”
As the chilly March air greeted the 13 students, Barb walked in the middle of the pack.
“This makes me sad,” she said to nobody in particular.
Students stood around the six garden plots, each lined with wooden boards that would contain cucumbers and strawberries once the school closed. Small green bushes marked a line between the parking lot and the gardens, two of which were completely covered by extra dirt.
“We could add another plot,” Barb said once she noticed the two missing shrubs. “But that might be even sadder.”
* * *
Next door in Becky’s English class, there were usually 15 students. On this day there were three.
The students sat in family room, which is similar to homeroom. Chuck gave each teacher a list of topics to discuss.
One item on Chuck’s agenda was to collect students’ T-shirt sizes. The four of them guessed what size shirts the missing students wore. When they stumbled upon Oompa’s name, Aaron said she’d fizzled out. Oompa hadn’t been to school since Chuck announced that the students couldn’t save Aurora. She said she didn’t see the point now that she couldn’t get a diploma with Aurora’s name on it.
“I’m worried about her,” Becky said.
* * *
Oompa was once a bully. In middle school, Aaron and Oompa were both in the same weight class on their wrestling team, and Oompa had shoved Aaron on his face and made him cry.
It was hard for Aaron and his friends to watch Oompa, someone who they knew was so strong, give up.
Oompa’s friends tried to keep her from quitting. Aaron was at Oompa’s house once before she decided to quit school and listened to her cry. He said it was difficult to watch someone who was so close to graduating be affected to the point where she couldn’t handle it anymore.
When Oompa stopped coming to school, Aaron spent a lot of time hounding her to come back. But once Oompa set her mind to something, that was it. There was no bringing her back.
But Oompa wasn’t the only student who quit. Aaron watched several of his friends give up. If anyone stopped, he’d hassle them until they came back or stopped answering his calls.
* * *
Across the street from Aurora was a small playground with swings and slides. Oompa sat on a picnic table on a sunny day in March staring at the school.
“If something happens next year where they save the school, you guys better petition to let me come back in without an interview,” Oompa said to her two best friends, one who graduated in May, the other who was a few credits too short.
Oompa wanted to go back to school, but she said it was a pride thing. She didn’t want to walk through the doors and tell Chuck she’d messed up. She once asked Chuck if she could come to a town hall meeting on Friday and he said no.
Every time she left Aurora, she regretted it, but this time she knew she couldn’t earn eight credits in time.
Whenever Oompa dropped out, it was always because of a boy. She said she’d rather be at home cuddling than sitting in a classroom. She admitted that the last time was also because of a boy, and she just used the school closing as an excuse.
* * *
Aaron said Aurora was never the same after it was announced the school would close. As of March there were about 30 students still showing up at school.
“How many kids did we lose?” Aaron asked himself. “I don’t know, 10, 20 … a lot of them.”
But when Aurora was in its prime, the teachers and the environment made all the difference. When he walked into one classroom, he could be awed by simply reading the quotes around him.
“I felt I could gain some intelligence just by looking at the walls,” he said.
The school that had diminished attendance isn’t the school Aaron knew.
* * *
Chuck was doing business as usual. He couldn’t waste time saying, “This is the last time we’re doing this and that.” He had a school to run and students to graduate.
“I’m avoiding it a little,” he said about the end.
Chuck said it got increasingly harder for students to come to school. It was even hard for teachers to show up. On this particular day, Chuck woke up with a migraine. He even had difficulty showing up.
“We’re not heroes. We’re teachers,” Chuck said. “We’re doing what we said we we’re going to do.”
The message that was received was that these students don’t matter any more, Chuck said. It would be understandable if they threw in the towel, he said, and many did just that. But despite the closing of their school, about 50 students continued to show up.
“We’re not dead. There are things to do,” he said. “Aurora is coming to an end. The world is not coming to an end. The thing to do is to do school the best we can for as long as we can.”
* * *
The gargoyles in front of the school were named Dewey and Steve — at least, that’s what an upperclassman told Aaron when he was a freshman. As a graduation present, Chuck gave all 25 seniors $200 and one of his gargoyles.
“I tried to match how you look on your face to these things,” Chuck said as he passed them out.
“Mine looks like a dog,” one student said.
Aaron’s gargoyle sat on a wall with chains holding him back. It became his favorite possession.
“Gargoyles are supposed to keep evil spirits away,” Chuck said. “Well, on the way back from lunch I was pulled over by the cops. If my car has a flat tire in three places today, I want all of these sons of bitches back.”
* * *
On May 28, 2010, the last class of Aurora graduates received diplomas with the words “Aurora Alternative High School” written across them.
Oompa sat in the audience and watched.
“I’m going to issue a collective challenge to the class of 2010,” Chuck said on the Buskirk-Chumley stage. “Basically, my challenge after tonight is to be an Aurora kid. Be an Aurora ambassador.”
He told a story about Aaron. Once after a school trip, Aaron needed a ride home, so Chuck drove him. When Aaron knocked on his door, two children greeted him, clamping their small hands to his thighs, yelling, “Aaron’s home! Aaron’s home!”
“You would have thought Santa Claus knocked on his door,” Chuck said. “Aaron, like me, takes care of kids. Aaron’s challenge is to be an Aurora kid and take care of the kids.”
Before Chuck handed out their diplomas, he had one more thing to say.
“There’s a lot of people that didn’t go here or aren’t parents or students in this room. That’s a lot of support, and I also challenge you to be an Aurora kid. You’re not alone. Aurora lives.”
Chuck and two of the original Aurora teachers were relocated to the Bloomington Graduation School, where students can continue their alternative education in front of computers all day. The rest of the teachers were scattered across the school district.
One student, Lindsay Smith, was supposed to graduate with the last class of Aurora kids, but she didn’t have enough credits. She said she’s not a fan of the new program because it’s all on computers, and she can’t learn without creativity. But that’s about to change.
Although Chuck can’t get his building back, he will get his teachers back in the fall. Students were told there will be more teacher interaction in a classroom setting with less time on computers. Although Lindsay will have earned her last three credits by then and graduate this summer, she said getting their teachers back is a start.
“Even though I won’t be there,” she said, “I’m excited for them.”
Aaron is taking classes at Ivy Tech, and his goal is to eventually transfer to IU and become a teacher. Almost a year after graduation, Aaron still remembers Chuck’s words: Aurora lives. He still wears his navy blue T-shirt with those words written across the front when he attends classes at Ivy Tech.
Oompa was the first student enrolled in the new program last fall, but she quit because she couldn’t learn in that environment. She still lives in Bloomington with her daughter Skylar, a blonde 3-year-old with a pink stripe in her hair. Oompa doesn’t have a plan right now, and that’s OK with her.
Her daughter is supposed to go to Binford and Rogers elementary schools like Oompa, but she hopes to enroll Bug, which is what she calls her daughter, into a local charter school. When she took Bug to the doctor last week, he said she was learning at a 4-year-old level.